The year was 1976. The country was still healing from the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal. A large faction of the population remained hostile to the changes society was undertaking. It was the bicentennial year and everyone was looking forward to celebrating the country’s 200th birthday.
On April 25 baseball season was underway and the Chicago Cubs had traveled to Los Angeles to play a three-game series against the Dodgers. It was a sunny day in southern California that Sunday. The crowd of 25,167 was there as much for the sun tan as they were for ball game.
Playing center field for the Chicago Cubs that day was Rick Monday, the first player taken in the draft some 11 years earlier. He had grown up in Santa Monica California and had played for the Dodgers earlier in his career.
The game was relatively quiet with the Cubs taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning when Bill Madlock hit a single to right field off Rick Rhoden scoring Monday who had singled two batters before.
After Rhoden retired the side in the top of the fourth inning the Cubs took their place on the field and began warming up. What happened next has become one of the greatest moments in baseball and can best be described by the participant himself, Rick Monday in this interview with MLB.com in 2006.
“In between the top and bottom of the fourth inning, I was just getting loose in the outfield, throwing the ball back and forth. Jose Cardenal was in left field and I was in center. I don’t know if I heard the crowd first or saw the guys first, but two people ran on the field. After a number of years of playing, when someone comes on the field, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it because they had too much to drink? Is it because they’re trying to win a bet? Is it because they don’t like you or do they have a message that they’re trying to present?
“When these two guys ran on the field, something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t right from the standpoint that one of them had something cradled under his arm. It turned out to be an American flag. They came from the left-field corner, went past Cardenal to shallow left-center field.
“That’s when I saw the flag. They unfurled it as if it was a picnic blanket. They knelt beside it, not to pay homage but to harm it as one of the guys was pulling out of his pocket somewhere a big can of lighter fluid. He began to douse it.
“What they were doing was wrong then, in 1976. In my mind, it’s wrong now, in 2006. It’s the way I was raised. My thoughts were reinforced with my six years in the Marine Corp Reserves. It was also reinforced by a lot of friends who lost their lives protecting the rights and freedoms that flag represented.
“So I started to run after them. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what was running through my mind except I was mad, I was angry and it was wrong for a lot of reasons.
“Then the wind blew the first match out. There was hardly ever any wind at Dodger Stadium. The second match was lit, just as I got there. I did think that if I could bowl them over, they can’t do what they’re trying to do.
“I saw them go and put the match down to the flag. It’s soaked in lighter fluid at this time. Well, they can’t light it if they don’t have it. So I just scooped it up.
“My first thought was, ‘Is this on fire?’ Well, fortunately, it was not. I continue to run. One of the men threw the can of lighter fluid at me. We found out he was not a prospect. He did not have a good arm. Thank goodness.
“Tommy Lasorda was in his last year as third-base coach before he took over for Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston. Tommy ran past me and called these guys every name in the longshoreman’s encyclopedia.”
After Monday rescued the flag he gave it to Doug Rau, a relief pitcher with the Dodgers. The crowd at first was confused. As they began to realize what had just happened, the fans gave Rick Monday a standing ovation for his act of bravery.
The applause was replaced with silence then starting quietly and gaining momentum the fans began singing “God Bless America”. It was perhaps the most patriotic display in the history of baseball and to this day some 34 years later it remains a moment that defined us as a nation and as a collective group of fans.